Settle down, angry book-brandishing knights, and consider, if you will, the strange circumstance of Maesters Benioff and Weiss. The showrunning duo, like Jaime Lannister, know plenty of fancy words and are the product of some of the finest universities on the continent. (Benioff attended Dartmouth, known primarily for producing many wealthy Masters of Coin; Weiss graduated from Wesleyan, where the banners are made of hemp, and the bannermen are full of it, as well.) Yet like Robb Stark, they also know the pain and burden of undue expectations: There’s a teeming mass of aggrieved nerds and Northerners following their every move, alternating between loyalty and skepticism. Adding to their challenge is the fact that George R.R. Martin, the revered lord whose army they’ve inherited, isn’t conveniently dead, like Robb’s dad, but rather is very much alive, standing over their shoulders, judgmentally stroking his beard. Most often, though, Benioff and Weiss remind me of Tyrion. Too clever for their own good, the two parlayed lucrative screenwriting careers and the confidence of the suits at HBO into a demanding new life spent poring over dense books filled with another man’s fantastical writing and rearranging the chairs in someone else’s council room.
It seems wholly possible, then, to admire their bravery while questioning their sanity. There are times, such as last week, when the attempt to unite the sprawling, digressive story of Game of Thrones in a way that still maintains a modicum of forward momentum seems more impossible than stitching together the sundered Seven Kingdoms. In these overwhelming moments, I imagine the duo’s agents taking them out to lunch at the Ivy — or the Croatian version of the Ivy — and, over salads with dressing on the side, cheerfully spinning a version of the Kingslayer’s mantra: “Fighting bravely for a losing cause is admirable. Fighting for a winning cause is far more rewarding.” And then they hand them a blank check and a copy of the first draft of Goldilocks: Bear Hunter.
But then there are weeks like this one. “Walk of Punishment,” like all installments of Game of Thrones, juggled plots as deftly as a court jester and managed the whereabouts of more human beings than Littlefinger during Fleet Week. Stories were advanced in confetti-like shreds, and characters were introduced by the boatload. But the episode also carried with it a spark of wit and a whisper of thematic development. This was Game of Thrones as I like it best: plot-heavy but light on its feet, dancing confidently across the map to a beat only its makers (and, apparently, the Hold Steady) are able to hear.
I can’t help but wonder if this added rhythmic jolt was the result of having one of the men responsible for writing the packed, ambitious scripts set up behind the camera for the first time. David Benioff, who makes people talk for a living, chose to open his directorial debut with two striking set pieces that said volumes with total silence. The first was the funeral of Catelyn Stark’s father, Hoster Tully. As the late Lord of Riverrun floated toward his final resting place, his only son, Edmure, makes a great show of murdering some trout with a series of flaming arrows. The problem is that he’s meant to be igniting his father’s corpse, not showing Aquaman who’s boss. Thankfully his bachelor uncle, Blackfish, steps in and gets the job done with a single stroke. I love it when Game of Thrones demonstrates the ridiculous fallibility lurking behind all the medieval pomp and circumstance; how all heirs to anything are really just show-offy boys putting on airs. At least until a battlefield forces them either to grow up or bow down to someone else.
(As for keeping track of all these new lords and ladies, well, I can’t lie and pretend it comes naturally. The only reason I know that Blackfish is actually Brynden of House Tully — and not related to Onefish or Twofish from House Seuss — is due to a necessary assist from Grand Maester Wikipedia.)
The second silent scene was at King’s Landing. “A eunuch, a dwarf, a whoremonger, and an impossibly old man walk into a meeting” is both the start of the dirtiest joke in Westerosi history and the literal events of the first post-Blackwater meeting of the Small Council. In a world where nearly everything of substance is communicated by subtweet, Benioff wisely let some uncomfortable body language, a few raised eyebrows, and a nontraditional seating arrangement tell the whole story. So much of this show is theatrical; it was nice to see it be made explicit by letting a humorous moment breathe. I was also happy to see Cersei finally break the iron ceiling and take her rightful place at the table, although it’s hardly a victory for equality in the workplace that she wasn’t allowed to say anything. The bigger twist fell to Tyrion, who seems to have dusted off his ego quite nicely since his father stomped on it back in the premiere. Now the Imp’s got his swagger back, appraising wooden tables with the wry vigor of a weekend antiquer after a few Bloody Marys back at the B&B. His reward? Littlefinger’s old job as the royal treasurer. While a sudden detour into monetary policy sounds about as fun as running errands with Melisandre — “Off to make the sacrifices the Lord of Light demands … and also to pick up some hot dog buns. Be back soon!” — it’s worth remembering that Tyrion’s unique perspective allows him to see opportunity where others see only boredom. Take it from the charred remains of Stannis’s soldiers: Tyrion is always best when he’s underestimated. That’s probably why he’s so taken by Podrick, a humble squire whose unimpressive scabbard, we’re led to believe, somehow conceals a truly remarkable sword.
The episode was also improved by the presence of Daenerys. Her peregrinations tend to be both the most deliberate and most removed from the main plot, but I enjoy her slow-burning arc because it’s the rare chance to see a story speed bump forming years before the apple cart of the overall narrative reaches it, let alone finds itself tipped over. The maturation of the Mother of Dragons and her scaly sons is a Game of Thrones digression I’ll always have time for because it’s the type of story other long-running dramas are never able to manufacture; it’d be like Mags Bennett haunting the periphery of Justified’s first year, or the guy in the Members Only jacket sitting quietly in the background throughout all seven seasons of The Sopranos. (Interestingly, Lost actually did pull this off, but only retroactively, unless you believe J.J. Abrams intended for a puff of black smoke to look like Titus Welliver from jump.)
Dany’s quest is even more entertaining now that she’s formed a Small Council of her own, with Sers Jorah and Barristan as her entertainingly snippy Boy Fridays. (Out of all of Martin’s fantastical imaginings, I have to think the idea of two old men forced to keep their mouths shut while taking a much younger blonde shopping was the easiest for Benioff and Weiss to wrap their heads around. After all, they live in Los Angeles.) But are we really to believe that Daenerys was willing to swap one-third of her flame-throwing lizard inventory for 8,000 suicidal slave soldiers? Do dragons accept new masters more easily than poodles? The only person happier about this proposed deal than the Great Goatee of Astapor was the dude responsible for Game of Thrones’ CGI budget. And I have a feeling both will soon be disappointed, if not flambeéd.
The other great looming threat also took a step forward. After discovering an ice garden of decapitated horses’ heads — a.k.a. Jack Woltz’s worst nightmare — Mance Rayder tells his men to saddle up for war. I like Mance because he has a good sense for people. Not only can he correctly guess the state of the Night’s Watch — currently shivering and swallowing their ego along with sub-porcine gruel at Craster’s creepy cult farm — he even knows just when to hug his best lieutenants. This might be minor, but it feels important. Especially because hugging is more or less verboten south of the Wall. Just look at poor Hot Pie: He bakes Arya a giant, steaming Breadwolf — they were great at Coachella this weekend, by the way — and doesn’t even get so much as a pat on the head or a rub on the tummy in return. Doesn’t anybody realize the best way to combat the chill of approaching winter is through the warmth of human kindness? The problem with these Westerosi is that they only cry over each other when it’s too late, like Cat telling fish tales by the window while her sons incept each other miles away. Even Talisa, supposedly a kindly sort, takes a moment to scare a couple of adolescents with werewolf stories while changing their bandages. Unless she meant Robb turns into a different kind of monster after hours? In which case it’s even worse.
Theon remains completely uninteresting to me, as his arc seems to mostly be about re-enacting cultural tableaux from the ’90s. (Last week was Wolverine; this week, it was the “Losing My Religion” video.) But his aborted escape did prove Jaime Lannister wrong: It seems that in the Seven Kingdoms, men are just as likely to be raped in captivity as women. Luckily for Theon, he has a few lucky arrows still in his quiver — he’s rescued by the same anonymous archer who untied him the first time. It’s awfully nice of this kid, whoever he is, but here’s a pro tip: Next time you want a whiny guy with a hole in his foot to escape unnoticed, maybe you don’t choose the white horse? In sooty Westeros, it’s the equivalent of choosing a hot pink DeLorean as a getaway car.
The more time we spend with Jaime Lannister — and that’s two episodes in a row that he’s stolen like a loaf of bread during a siege — the more it’s clear that the only thing that separates him from his little brother is height. Both men use their humor like chain mail, not to deny the horrors of the larger world, but because they’re all too familiar with them. Like Tyrion, Jaime also has an intimate awareness of his own sins and flaws — and every decision he makes stems from that rough self-knowledge. As the series has gone on, we’ve learned that his cruelty is both selective and defensive: He didn’t give Bran Stark an impromptu lesson in parkour because he hated the kid; it was because he needed to protect himself and his family’s awful shame. So it makes sense that Jaime would use his silver tongue to plant visions of gold in Locke’s head, thus saving proud Brienne’s life and her dignity. At first, I thought the notion of her simply lying back and thinking of England — or even Renly — was preposterous, of course. Would Jaime have given the same advice to Theon? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized he probably would have. As a battle-scarred knight, Jaime knows what Jorah does: “There’s a beast in every man, and it stirs when you put a sword in his hand.” He also knows that there’s no such thing as dying nobly. It’s just called dying.
So I wonder: Was Jaime actually surprised when it was he who was butchered, not the spare partridge on the fire? He wasn’t kidding when he said he’s no longer as “young and resilient” as he once was. Ever since he was first captured by Robb Stark, he’s had the freewheeling, fatalistic air of a terminally ill gambler in Vegas. So what if he can’t cover the bets he’s making? There’s a bigger reckoning just around the corner. And at episode’s end, in a grimy wood halfway between hell and nowhere, Jaime’s bill finally comes due. It turns out there’s no wit sharper than an actual blade, and Jaime’s days as a feared warrior are likely done. The hand of the Kingslayer is not a much coveted position in Westeros. Nevertheless, the job is now decidedly vacant.
[Note on these recaps: I have not read the books, and I have no intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. So please, no spoilers or “I told you so”s in the comments, OK? OK!]